The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Why Meditation Matters

I’ve learned more about Buddhism and meditation from Shinzen Young than anyone else on the planet. 

Whenever I meet people who think that meditation is fuzzy, wimpy, or New Age-y, I point them to Shinzen. His approach is rigorous, no-nonsense, and no-bullshit. You take nothing on faith. Belief is not required.

Only one thing matters — willingness to carry out Shinzen’s instructions and see what kind of results you get. 

I’ve already posted about Shinzen’s approach to fear and anxiety. That’s an excellent place to start, and there’s more to explore. 

This series of posts is based on what I learned during meditation retreats led by Shinzen. To begin, I’ll summarize Shinzen’s overview of meditation — what the practice is all about. In future posts I’ll follow up with Shinzen’s ideas about:

  • Benefits of meditation
  • Developing a daily practice
  • Integrating meditation with the rest of your life

Please  keep two caveats in mind.

First, my posts are based on meditation retreats that Shinzen led between 1987 and 1992. Since then, Shinzen’s teachings have evolved. For his latest insights, see The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works and expandcontract, his YouTube channel.  

Second, I’m offering my personal understanding of Shinzen’s teaching. Any errors or omissions are mine.  

Serenity is a skill

Shinzen says that our human possibility is unconditional serenity. This is not perpetual pleasure. Instead, it is a baseline of psychological stability in any circumstance. We can experience this state while lying on our death bed as much as while making love. 

Our possibility is also unconditional freedom. This does not mean choosing our circumstances all the time. It means choosing our response to whatever shows up. 

Contrast these ideas with the belief that we must acquire something before we can be happy: some circumstance, possession, or feeling. This leads to the life of seeking — and often not finding — that mysterious something. 

To understand how this happens, consider the roots of our suffering — cravings and aversions, along with ignorance of their effects. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, these three factors are called kilesas (sometimes translated as kleshas, or kleśas).

When the kilesas are active, we find ourselves pushing and pulling on thoughts and physical sensations. When they’re pleasant, we cling to them (craving). When they’re unpleasant, we resist them (aversion). 

But these efforts are doomed because thoughts and sensations are in constant flux. They are subject to anicca (impermanence, or “passingness”). They arise, peak, and pass away like waves. Trying to make thoughts and sensations behave differently is like trying to scoop out an ocean with a spoon — pointless. 

Our fundamental human problem is to how to respond skillfully to the kilesas. This is the purpose of meditation. 

Discomfort is not suffering

Because the Buddha spoke so much about suffering and impermanence, many people think that Buddhism is pessimistic. Albert Schweitzer, Jack Kerouac, and many others made this error.

In reality, the message of Buddhism is overwhelmingly positive. We can do more than reduce suffering. In fact, we can end suffering completely. 

Note: This does not mean that we can get rid of discomfort. Through meditation, however, we can experience discomfort in a way that does not create suffering. 

The distinction between discomfort and suffering is perhaps the central teaching of the Buddha. And it is one that Shinzen emphasized. 

If discomfort is impermanent, then we can endure it. We sometimes say: This too shall pass. Through meditation practice, we take this idea to another dimension: This discomfort is passing — right now

Likewise, if pleasure is impermanent, then we can savor it without clinging to it — and welcome the next wave of pleasure when it arrives.

Shinzen quoted a Buddhist scripture on this point: 

No matter how assailed, anger need not arise. No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise. No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise.

This insight can become more than a concept. We meditate to see it directly, in a way that transforms daily life.